By Laura Hemming
It was an average Sunday afternoon when me and my partner, Sam, decided to head to our local swimming pool for a few laps. We’d been particularly stressed due to being midway through searching for and purchasing our first home, and decided we’d take some time out of relentlessly scrolling Rightmove to clear our heads. Whilst pausing between laps, Sam turned to me and asked, ‘what happens if I’m not around to pay my half of the mortgage in a year’s time?’. Terrified that I had pushed him into a commitment he did not want to make, I was convinced he was breaking up with me. ‘What do you mean?’ I demanded, ‘Are you breaking up with me?!’. ‘No’, he replied, ‘it’s just that I’m worried I might kill myself between now and then’.
My head spun. All the advice I had ever received or given about how to handle disclosures of suicidal thoughts swiftly left me, leaving behind only a knot of emotions which, to my dismay, I was not able to hide as smoothly as I tend to be able to in research situations. I tentatively probed further, subconsciously trying to assess the level of risk, ‘how long have you been feeling like this? Do you feel there’s any chance you might act on these thoughts? What sorts of things have made you feel this way?’, the whole time, my heart secretly breaking and my mind scorning me for not having picked up on this sooner.
Thankfully my partner agreed to see his GP as soon as possible and get help for the thoughts which he admitted he’d been having for most of his adult life. Almost two years later, he is finally off the waiting list and is currently two sessions deep into a 12 week course of CBT.
Those interim two years have seen us experience some lows, including me calling his University and demanding they keep him under their watch until I was able to pick him up and take him to A&E for his own safety, and some highs, including impulsively buying our very own fur-baby (pics below) which, anecdotally, has hugely improved his (and my) mental health. Concomitantly in those two years, I have been trying to navigate a space which I had previously deemed as academic, pervading my personal life (or vice versa?). To compound the matter, due to my own mental health problems, I have often required my partner to attend (mainly suicide focussed) research conferences with me, to help alleviate some of my own difficulties with anxiety and panic disorder. This has meant that my partner has sat with me whilst hearing about the most cutting edge research into suicide, an experience which I have found somewhat surreal.
Very suddenly the topic which I research (suicide and violence amongst male prisoners) as part of my PhD has become so much closer to home and I feel that this has in some ways impacted the way that I work and view my work.
First and foremost, I believe it has added an increased sense of urgency for me in striving to find the ‘solution’ to suicide. I find myself reading papers or hearing presentations at conferences and thinking ‘I wonder if this will be the thing that works for Sam’. This newfound sense of urgency has been accompanied with a realisation that there is nowhere near enough funding for suicide research, or mental health research as a whole. Due to my perceived urgent need to find a solution, I have therefore begun to donate monthly to MQ to try and address this funding gap in research, and, in a more selfish way, to quicker make the discovery that will best help Sam with his suicidal thoughts.
Secondly, due to now existing in what I perceive as a Venn diagram that includes both my personal and academic life, I have started seriously questioning whether we do enough to translate our research findings into the ‘real world’. Sam’s serendipitous attendance at suicide conferences made me wonder, why aren’t more people who have experience of suicide, directly or indirectly, invited to attend these events? And why isn’t the way that we present our findings more geared towards those people who, in theory, are the most heavily affected by our research? Whilst I acknowledge that there is lots being done to try and bridge the gap between ‘ivory tower academics’ and ‘Joe Bloggs’, I feel there is more that could be done to reach a world in which this two way transfer of knowledge is inherent in the way we work, and not a novel addition.
Lastly, it has sometimes been difficult for me to spend all day working with and reading about people who experience suicidal thoughts or behaviours, to then come home and continue to worry about this in a personal capacity. Whilst I have been offered clinical supervision to assist with navigating risk issues that may arise as a result of speaking to participants about suicide and violence, I often feel that these conversations do not offer an open, informal space to ‘vent’ about the impact of hearing about these things on me as a researcher. This has often led to me wanting to have an informal chat with Sam about my day in order to offload, though I feel that this too is not an option for me, as I worry that Sam is unable to take on any more emotional distress than what he is already experiencing. This got me thinking about whether we do enough for researchers in our field to allow the time and space to talk through distressing events. For me, this support would ideally be context specific, as a lot of the events that I find myself wanting to talk through are prison specific, and I would love to have the opportunity to speak to somebody else who’s experienced similar and is willing to give a listening ear.
Whilst I’m not always sure that I enjoy the overlap between my academic and personal life, this experience has made me extremely grateful to know that there exists a committed, thoughtful and gifted group of early career researchers who are as determined as I am to help those who experience suicide in any capacity. I remain hopeful that it is through the hard work of this group of researchers that we will find the ‘thing that works’ for Sam, and put an end to his struggle with suicidal thoughts.
Laura Hemming (@LHemming123) is a PhD student at the University of Manchester (email@example.com).
*Featuring photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash.
3 thoughts on “When your research topic becomes too close to home”
Hi Laura This is such an important but neglected issue. My experience is that many people who do academic work about suicide go into the area partly motivated to make sense of their own thoughts, feelings and history of suicide. I think good supervision and structures in research labs are essential to help people feel safe. Vicarious trauma is also common. Its so important to walk the talk when it comes to suicide prevention in academic settings. Stay well, Simon